First, Jakub Vrana was patient, biding his time as he kept his eyes on the puck and followed his man to the blue line. He got his stick on it at just the right time, and then he was off to the races — and there are few players who can catch Vrana up the ice. He pulled ahead for a breakaway, backhanding the puck past Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Mike McKenna and into the net.
Vrana opened his arms as he skated into the glass, facing the Washington Capitals fans standing to applaud him. One gentleman pointed back at him.
“I think I’m a good skater,” Vrana said, “and I just try to use it as much as I can.”
Plays like that used to feel like glimpses of the Capitals’ future, when on a team with so many skilled forwards, Vrana and his speed would soon be part of that elite class. And while he is still the organization’s future, a game such as Tuesday’s 5-3 win reinforced that he is very much a part of the present, too. He was the best player on the ice Tuesday night, and his two-goal, three-point game gave him the second-most goals on the team behind captain Alex Ovechkin.
Pheonix Copley finished with 37 saves, and T.J. Oshie scored two goals, one of which came on an empty net in the final seconds and was the 200th of his career.
“[Vrana] continues to grow and improve, and his speed is such a factor,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Finding ways to use his speed is important. And he was really able to be a factor tonight by taking away time and space and forcing turnovers.”
In the same way that Ovechkin’s blistering one-timer is his signature, Vrana’s is his speed. It’s natural, something that can’t be taught, and after he recorded 13 goals and 14 assists as a rookie last season, the biggest step in his development this season has been to take advantage of his skating talents more. On the first goal of the game, Vrana chipped the puck to himself entering the zone and, as he whizzed past his defender, he skated right to the net before dishing the puck to Tom Wilson for a tap-in at 4:21.
Wilson has 13 goals in 23 games, one short of the career high he set last season in 78 games.
“Just try to keep up with V,” Wilson said. “He’s a world-class skater, so you kind of trust that he’s going to win his race and just kind of hope that he looks up and sees the play at the back door, which he did.”
Center Nicklas Backstrom started to feel sick Monday, and he was ruled out against the Flyers because of an illness. Lars Eller skated in his place on the second line with Oshie and Vrana, a role Eller is familiar with after he filled in for an injured Backstrom in three playoff games last season. Eller had just two goals and two assists in the 16 games before Tuesday’s, but Reirden said before the game that “he’s always seemed to rise to the occasion” of playing an elevated role.
With the score knotted at 1 to start the second period, Oshie tipped Eller’s point shot to lift the Capitals to the lead at 9:19. Vrana was on the ice for that goal, too, and 2:03 later, his speedy breakaway goal extended Washington’s cushion.
“You think maybe he’s not coming, and all of a sudden he pours it on and gets himself a breakaway and creates chances strictly out of his effort and his legs,” Oshie said.
But perhaps his most impressive tally came 15:55 into the second period. Washington’s power play has had miserable results of late, entering the game in a 1-for-31 slump over the past 10 games. Seventeen seconds before the Capitals’ second man-advantage of the night was set to expire, Vrana broke the drought. Center Travis Boyd found him on the goal line, Vrana quickly fired at an odd angle, and the puck somehow squeaked past McKenna to make it 4-1.
That gave Vrana 14 goals, eclipsing the career high he set a year ago. Washington’s 2014 first-round pick, Vrana is often the last player to leave the ice after practice, using the extra time to work on everything from tipping shots to playing along the wall to finishing in front of the net. Although the 22-year-old has established himself in the Capitals’ top-six forward corps, he still goes about his business as if he has everything to prove.
“I feel the coaches have confidence in me,” Vrana said. “They give me lots of ice time, and I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let down my team, and I just want to go out there and work hard.”
Seemingly in an effort to help Vrana score a third goal of the game for his first hat trick, Reirden had him on the ice with the top power-play unit — Vrana is typically with the second wave — late in the third period. Ovechkin nearly set him up for a backdoor look, but Vrana couldn’t corral the pass. After the game, he vowed to work on it in a future practice — something for the Capitals to look forward to in the future.
“He keeps maturing, keeps getting more and more confidence, which is good for us,” Oshie said. “You can see what he can do with his legs, and somehow his hands move just as fast. He’s a big part of our team moving into a big role for us. He’s been a big player so far this year.”